Pull up a Chair: a Conversation with the Editors of Sprudge
If you’re a coffee lover and/or a social media savant, odds are, you follow Sprudge religiously. Sprudge is, after all, the single most comprehensive database of coffee news and general awesomeness on the Internet. It’s updated daily with posts about coffee, news, coffee events, videos, lists, infographics—you name it.
It’s the veritable cat’s pajamas of the coffee industry. Which is just one reason I was so surprised when I got an email from them telling me that they were interested in having a conversation with me. I mean—me!?
These guys are coffee royalty! They rub shoulders with the likes Brian W. Jones, James Hoffmann, Tim Wendelboe, Oliver Strand, and David Walsh on the reg! They’re invited to jet set all over the world to cover international events! And yet, despite all of their success, they wanted to have a conversation with me.
Without any further ado, let me introduce to you, Dear Reader, a team of coffee lovers that needs no introduction. Today I welcome the two men behind Sprudge, Zachary Carlsen and Jordan Michelman. Gentlemen, feel free to pull up a chair.
First of all, it is a massive privilege to have you guys join me here at the Table today. Thanks for agreeing to do this. I, along with so, so many other people, love what you’re doing at Sprudge. Before we get started, could you introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about you?
Zachary Carlsen: Hi, I’m Zachary, I’m the co-founder of Sprudge.com. I’m a Sagittarius with a rising moon in Cancer. I’m married and I live in Portland, Oregon. I’ve known Jordan since the first day of 8th grade.
Jordan Michelman: Hi, I’m Jordan, I’m the other co-founder of Sprudge.com. I’m a Libra. I’m engaged to be married and I also live in Portland, Oregon. I’ve known Zachary since the first day of 8th grade.
As it is with most things in life, I think the best place to start is at the beginning. What were you doing before Sprudge was born?
ZC: Well, I’ve been working in coffee for more than 10 years…first at Starbucks through high school and college. I moved out to DC in 2005 and started working for murky coffee. A few of us moved up to NYC to work in the big city, and I managed the Ninth Street Espresso cafes before moving back to the West Coast, where I worked at Stumptown Coffee in Seattle. I worked the Stumptown Amsterdam pop-up in 2010, then moved to SF and worked at Four Barrel with my honey boo-boo child. I’m now dedicated full-time to Sprudge.com in Portland. It’s awesome.
JM: I have a writing background through academia, though when Sprudge was born I was pretty much playing music full-time (and earning $0 for it), supplementing my lifestyle by working in restaurants and bars. I very nearly went to Law School, but I kind of freaked out on doing that and let myself play music for a few years after college instead. One of the bands I played in was based in Seattle but put out by a little record label in Athens, Georgia, so we would go on huge cross-country tours back and forth. That’s where I really learned about coffee, which seems weird, but Zachary was working for murky by this point, and he would tell me, you know, “Oh when you’re playing in Chicago, you gotta go check out this cafe near Millenium Park called Intelligentsia…”
And so I did, and that was kind of the life-changing shot of espresso for me, or whatever – it sounds cliche, the whole “God shot” thing, but I actually did have that experience there, at the Mill Park Intelli in like…2006?
How did Sprudge come about? What was the inspiration for launching the site?
ZC: The site started out of me being a working barista, and being super tired at the end of my shifts, but really wanting there to be one single website where I could go, and read about all the news happening in specialty coffee. At that time, in 2009, there were lots of personal blogs covering coffee, but not really any great way to get a feel for what was happening all in one place. I wanted to start that.
JM: So I came into Stumptown on Pine [in Seattle] one evening, sort of like I did everyday, to hang out with Zach at the end of his shift, and he was all excited and bouncing around with this idea written out on a napkin. And the idea was basically a drawing of The Drudge Report, but with coffee headlines in place of the conservative news of the day. And Zachary said to me, “I need your help writing all these headlines…”
ZC: You know the Drudge Report, right? Our site was a visual parody of the Drudge Report for the first 3 months. And then eventually we were actually writing our own long-form essays and putting them up on dummy websites so we could link to them – Jordan wrote something about the new Starbucks Roy Street stealth store that was excerpted by the New York Times – and we realized that we should probably just start writing real long-form content.
JM: We still miss the Drudge Style. One day it will come back.
Of course, you’ve gotta tell us what “Sprudge” means. Where did that come from?
JM: “Sprudge” is a neologism that Zachary invented; it’s a term for the espresso sludge that winds up on your shoes, your clothes, and underneath your wrist watch at the end of a busy barista shift.
For those out there in cyberspace who may have never visited the site (or may have never even heard of the site), could you briefly explain what Sprudge is all about?
JM: We’re the worldwide leader in coffee news, experiential journalism, satire and surrealism.
ZC: We’re the Gawker of coffee – “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s brews.”
JM: We’re the most widely read coffee publication on the planet, specializing in daily updates, live event coverage, viral video, massive integrated public events, origin coverage…
ZC: We are a small business, a 50/50 partnership based in Portland, Oregon.
Nowadays, Sprudge is obviously a huge sensation in the coffee industry. You guys have your hands in just about everything going on: barista competitions, local throwdowns, coffee blogger spotlights, roaster write-ups (am I missing anything?)—nearly every aspect of the business is covered on Sprudge. Surely it can’t have always been this way, right? What were the beginning stages of Sprudge like and how has it evolved into what it is now?
ZC: In the beginning our website functioned much more as an aggregate, and we rarely created original content for it. We’re now 3 years in to developing a voice for the site, and that voice is part of how we report the news and gossip we find particularly interesting and newsworthy.
JM: We had no idea where it would go when we started it – neither of us are from professional blogging or publishing backgrounds – but we’ve always tried to be global with the reach of the website. Some of the first people we made fun of were European coffee celebrities, and we continue to mock them to this day.
What has been your favorite part of Sprudge’s existence so far?
JM: To be totally honest, some of the travel stuff we’ve gotten to do has been a real thing for us in our lives, and we’re both incredibly grateful for that.
ZC: Getting to watch the industry grow, documenting cool projects, meeting people…covering events…writing and making Photoshops everyday.
JM: Zachary is like the Jiro Ono of Photoshop.
How would you like to see the site progress? Are you happy with the way things are right now, or do you want it to further evolve?
JM: Both? Sprudge has turned into a real day job for both of us, and we’re still both totally enamored with what that means in terms of daily work, content, developing a voice together. We’re both huge, huge “South Park” fans, and when I read about and watch interviews with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, I relate to them in terms of their weirdly close friendship and working relationship, the idea that they’ve built this whole world together and they co-publish everything. We want to be the Trey Parker and Matt Stone of coffee.
ZC: Working with more international partners, bringing in more people from outside of the coffee bubble…when we throw events, like our recent cupping party in San Francisco, it’s so cool to meet people who say, you know, “Hey, I work in tech”, or “Hey, I’m an accountant”, but they love our website and read it all the time. We want to grow more with that kind of audience, to open up specialty coffee to more and more people, to show them that coffee is this really unique, playful, fun industry with very serious issues at its core – international trade and developing countries.
Is there anything you’d like to do but haven’t done yet?
JM: Yes. We have to play coy about this now, but there’s a lot of exciting stuff happening for us on the horizon, opportunities we’re eligible for now because of the sweat equity we’ve earned writing Sprudge every day for 3 years. It’s incredibly exciting and we hope to be able to share more with the world soon, and also to not have a stress breakdown in the process.
ZC: We’ve started bringing on more help, more outside voices, and that’s something we very much want to grow in the future. It’s something for Sprudge readers to look forward to.
How do you stay up to date on all the goings on in the industry? I mean, while I’m at work, shirking my responsibilities, I pretty much live on Twitter, and even though I follow a couple thousand coffee people, I still have no idea of all the things going down in my own city let alone across the country!
ZC: It’s a big jumble of resources, which we parse through together and argue out in daily editorial meetings. We get phone calls on our hotline 567-CRINKLY, we get anonymous email tips, Twitter and Facebook are obvs huge, and so is our enormous RSS feed.
JM: We learn a lot by actually going to cafes, too. Traveling for one story, we’ll spend time with people in coffee and land on 2 or 3 other stories just by getting out there and hanging out in cafes. For example, we were in San Francisco a week ago to throw this big event in the Museum of Modern Art, and so we got to dink around in SF for a couple of days, which naturally means going to a bunch of great cafes. You can’t help but find stories that way. It’s a kind of lifestyle, sort of always keeping your ears and eyes open for something that would be fun to put on the site.
With all of the events and news and other goings on that you cover, what do you think is the most exciting thing happening in the industry lately?
JM: I think the evolution of throwing events with a coffee theme or component is really exciting right now. Coffee as the great organizer is nothing new – that’s the whole history of what the cafe “is”, and why cafes matter – but I’m talking about the evolution from Slow Food Nation to the Good Food Awards, stuff like Coffee Common, Barista Nation, and especially some of the new concepts we’ve been privy to surrounding the SCAA Symposium model. We want to be a part of that – we want to get better at throwing big events, and I believe that events like the ones mentioned are super important and exciting.
ZC: Yeah, to that end, the growth of specialty coffee beyond the notion of just “the industry” – getting coffee into people’s hands who might be a restaurant sever captain, or an IT grunt, or some other kind of blogger. Growing the circle of specialty coffee, recognizing that fine coffee is part of something bigger happening right now.
For the past couple of years, you have been giving out Sprudgie Awards for categories like Notable Roastery, Best Cafe, and Best Magazine. I also saw that you’ve awarded “Best Blog.” You’ve given jimseven the prize (and rightfully so) and the now defunct Coffea Cultura. You switched gears last year and Oliver Strand with “Best Coffee Writing.” Is this a permanent focus shift?
ZC: Haha, the Sprudgies! We’ve been giving out Sprudgies since the very beginning, and each year the focus is a little different.
JM: We mostly do it because we can, from then on, refer to recipients on our website as “Sprudgie Award winners”. We made up the awards very early on in the site, because it was brash and outrageous and fun, and it’s kind of grown into its own thing. But basically, we sit down at the end of each calendar year and argue about the Sprudgies for a day or two, and figure out what we want to award and who we want to give the awards to.
You asked specifically about the award we gave Oliver Strand, and there was reasoning behind that. As opposed to “Best Blog” or “Best Magazine,” we felt like he’d kind of amassed a bunch of different work over several different publications, and it made more sense to honor him individually than to give the award to Ristretto, his column for T Magazine online. His work in the Diner’s Journal and in magazines like Bon Appetit were worth mentioning, as is his Tumblr, and so that’s why we went with a more holistic “Best Coffee Writing” award.
ZC: To Oliver’s credit, he immediately mocked us for the award on Twitter, which is pretty much what we were hoping for.
I know you’ve mentioned me on the site a couple times (cheers!), you recently featured my friend Randy Levine (of SnobCoffery), and you’ve featured several really great blogs (like DCILY and Cappuccino Sandwich) in the past. Can you rapid-fire some of your other current favorite coffee blogs?
ZC: Sure. Anything and everything coming from Liz Clayton and Erin Meister on Serious Eats, stuff from JimSeven, coverage in LA Weekly from Tien Nguyen, this guy Tom Horgen out at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, David Schomer’s blog…
JM: I’m a big fan of Jay Caragay’s blog, because there’s real aesthetics to the writing going on alongside the actual content. Coffee Common does a great job blogging during their events, and Brian Jones, who blogs for them and as Dear Coffee, I Love You, is someone who we both read and respect (even if we’ve savaged him occasionally on Sprudge). Melissa Allison’s Starbucks business reporting for the Seattle Times continues to be great…some of the stuff that’s gone up on Nordic Coffee Culture has been great, though I wish they’d update more frequently. There’s more, I’m sure.
ZC: Yeah, and if you’re reading this and you’ve got an awesome coffee blog, please write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m a writer, you guys are writers, you have an affinity for other writers. How about a writing challenge? Finish this sentence: “To me, coffee is ____________.”
JM: …as coffee does.
Guys, it’s been a real treat. A million thanks for chatting with me.
ZC: Thanks for having us!
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